These days it’s hard to believe that cinematic zombies were created by one filmmaker. George Romero has made it clear that never set out to invent “zombies.” To him, zombies were the wide-eyed, lumbering voodoo victims in old Bela Lugosi movies. The reanimated corpses in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, on the other hand, were a combination of grave-robbing ghouls and bloodsucking vampires. The filmmaker didn’t realize he was creating a new kind of monster… but over the course of the past fifty years, Romero’s creation has continued to evolve.
In Romero’s DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978), zombies developed memories. They began flocking to a suburban mall en masse because “this was an important place in their lives.” In DAY OF THE DEAD (1985), they exhibited learned behavior. At least, one of them did. The affectionately-named Bub figured out how open a book, listen to a Walkman, and shoot a gun. In LAND OF THE DEAD (2004), zombies began to form communities and work together. That film’s central undead character, “Big Daddy,” led a vaguely political campaign to eat the rich. In interviews, Romero has described Big Daddy as an undead Pancho Villa—making it clear that the filmmaker no longer views his zombies as simple monsters.
While other horror filmmakers have modified Romero’s zombies to make them scarier, Romero has modified his creation to support an underlying mythology. The ending of LAND OF THE DEAD hinted at the possibility of adétente between Big Daddy’s zombie horde and the more humane humans—a new order in which the living and the undead might coexist. Unfortunately, Romero’s fourth Dead movie was commercially eclipsed by remakes and retreads his earlier work, forcing the filmmaker to downsize the scope of his subsequent zombie movies. With 2007’s DIARY OF THE DEAD, he rebooted his Dead series and returned to the original night of the zombie outbreak. Since then, Romero’s politically-charged vision of Undead America has gone largely unanswered, leaving his fans to wonder: Where do Romero zombies go from here?
Comic book readers know that Romero has not been entirely silent on the subject. Soon after LAND OF THE DEAD, when it became clear that there would not be a big-budget sequel, the filmmaker brought his mythology to a new medium—one where big-budget ideas don’t require such big budgets. In the 5-issue DC Comics miniseries TOE TAGS: THE DEATH OF DEATH (2004), Romero introduced a character named Damien, a zombie who in the afterlife has retained his memories and the power of speech. (He also seems to have some kind of power over animals… Hence his pet elephant.)
The writer / director told Rue Morgue that he conceived the story as a “lighter” alternative to the LAND OF THE DEAD script, which was initially dismissed by Hollywood execs as being too dark for the aftermath of 9/11. Although THE DEATH OF DEATH is tonally very different from Romero’s earlier zombie stories—“more fun, less negative” according to the storyteller himself—it does advance his mythology by posing one big question: What if zombies eventually become more humane than humans?
More recently, Romero wrote a 15-issue miniseries called EMPIRE OF THE DEAD for Marvel. That series expanded his mythology to include vampires… or, at least, that was the marketing hook. In the story, Romero’s heart is obviously still with the zombies—and, even more than that, with the deeply flawed humans who keep Undead America interesting. When I interviewed Romero in 2010, he said, “I’ll never make a movie where the zombies take over, because for me a zombie movie is no fun without a bunch of stupid humans running around.”
In EMPIRE OF THE DEAD, Romero substitutes vampires for the rich, powerful humans in LAND OF THE DEAD, and thereby creates a kind of alliance between humans and zombies. In a conventional genre narrative, EMPIRE would turn into a straightforward “vampires vs. zombies” battle royale, but Romero remains true to his cinematic mythology, which is about humans and zombies—not just the conflict between them, but also the similarities between them. He explained to Comic Book Resources, “You know, humans, living humans, aren’t all the same as each other, so why should zombies be? They’re not so different from you and me, except for their being dead, of course. They have their own personalities, their own strengths and weaknesses, their own memories of the kind of people they used to be. So what if those memories started to reawaken? The living dead would become even more individualistic. And formidable.”
For me, this begs a really interesting question: What if Romero’s zombie mythology—which began with a sudden, supernatural awakening—culminated with another sudden, supernatural awakening? I think of H.G. Wells, who in THE SHAPE OF THINGS TO COME wrote about a “war to end all wars” in much the same way that Romero has written about the zombie apocalypse. Wells said, “Only through personal disaster or the manifest threat of personal disaster can normal human beings be sufficiently stirred to attempt a revolutionary change in their conditions.” Romero has expressed the same sentiment: “I thought [NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD] was about revolution… And so I said, What would be a really earth-shattering thing that would be revolutionary, and that people would refuse to ignore? The dead… stop… staying…. dead.”
In 2016, of course, that’s not such a revolutionary idea. Romero’s mythology needs to keep evolving. Which brings me back to H.G. Wells, who also wrote a novel about a comet that “does the work of centuries of moral education in the twinkling of an eye, and makes mankind sane, understanding and infinitely tolerant.” In his autobiography he also wished for “some virus with which one might bite people and make them mad for education.” I’d like to see Romero imagine a world in which something (be it a comet or a virus or something else entirely) stimulates that kind of evolutionary leap in zombies, then poses the question, Where do we go from here?